Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Triple: Kesang Marstrand / Wall of Trophies / Takénobu

March 20, 2016

kesangmarstrand

Kesang Marstrand‘s For My Love cuts through the forests of average singer/songwriter work and shows off Marstrand’s impressive talents. Marstrand’s x factors are a commitment to spartan arrangements, a strong melodic sensibility, and an intriguing tension between her lyrics and her arrangements. Marstrand’s tunes consist mostly of an acoustic guitar, occasional sparse counterpoint instruments, her confident alto, and consistent use of tasteful reverb; due to this last element, the tunes have a fullness and a gravitas that I expect from songs with fuller arrangements.

It’s not just the reverb that creates gravitas, as the melodies that Marstrand writes for herself contribute heft to the work. “First Love,” “Arrow Breaks Skin,” and the title track each have indelible vocal lines that balance “fun to sing” and “serious music” deftly.  The songs are catchy, yet without being “pop”–these are clearly singer/songwriter tunes, but ones that aren’t so introspective as to lose connection to a wider audience (a common complaint lodged against singer/songwriters). There’s a dignified, mature air to the tunes that shines through in the instrumental and vocal songwriting.

The lyrics provide a counterpoint to the songwriting, as they are direct, emotional, and raw. The title track conveys the blunt, unfettered pain of a murder ballad sung from the perspective of the bereaved; “First Love” is a sad, retrospective tale about the titular experience. “Walking Dream” and “Night Planes” are more impressionistic, stringing together a small number of short, poetic lines. Throughout, Marstrand infuses her words with the sorts of big emotions that aren’t as dramatically represented in the delicate, mature songs that accompany them.  Marstrand’s For My Love is a moving, mature work that shows off a unique songwriting sensibility.

walloftrophies

Wall of Trophies‘ Heliograph includes reverb as well, but they have the knob cranked way farther over than Kesang Marstrand. Their synth-driven indie-rock art music manages to have more reverb than seemingly possible without obscuring the songs that make this release so enjoyable.

While Heliograph is a debut under the Wall of Trophies moniker, it’s the second full-length collaboration between Brittany Jean and Will Copps. (They released Places under their own names in 2014.) The songs on Places were slow-moving, genre-defying creations, full of post-rock builds, clouds of reverb, and Jean’s towering vocals. In contrast, Heliograph‘s tunes are more traditionally song-oriented while still retaining the layers and layers of reverb, developing like a minor-key version of School of Seven Bells.

The title track is the best example of the subtle shift: the tune opens with a driving piano line and drum machine beat before introducing low-key vocals from Jean. Her vocals, instead of creating noisily dramatic effect, tend to fade off into the distance on high notes. This allows her to mesh with the rest of the instrumentation on the song: by the time a huge synth section comes in at two minutes, the focus is split between her vocals and the rest of the song arrangement. The results recontextualize the ideas of Places into a more understandably indie-rock realm.

This approach allows both band members’ skills to shine: the synths are more distinct (“Break All the Rules”!!), the vocal lines are more easily singable, and overall tracks are more memorable. The songs are big and noisy, but they’re distilled into distinct, digestible chunks. There are some moments of respite in the rush: “Dirt” features the acoustic guitar that Jean writes her songs on before bringing in a burbling arpeggiator, while the beginning of “Debt” has a bit of a James Blake-ian downtempo vibe.

Wall of Trophies’ work builds on the creators’ own ideas as well as established sounds to create a unique album. Where Places landed as an artistic whole, Heliograph allows people to break the sound down into individual parts with distinct instrumental and vocal melodies. Both are approaches I’ve lauded before and will laud again. It’s a little weird to be talking about “distinctness” as a primary quality of a heavily-reverbed synth-indie-rock album, but that’s the world they’ve set up. If you’re into School of Seven Bells, you need to hear this.

takenobu

And now for something completely different: Reversal is Takénobu‘s 5th album of instrumental cello compositions. His work relies heavily on intertwining cello lines and pizzicato plucking, which places the legato and staccato in conversation with each other.

You can hear this on “Reversing,” the first full track after the introduction–a cinematic arpeggio comes in over a legato bed of strings, then transforms into a pizzicato backdrop for an smooth, expressive solo. The combination of the note types, as well as his ability to use elements of the cello as percussion, shows his versatility in using the whole of the cello’s abilities. These sonic pieces come up over and over again, in the gentle opening of “Snow Day,” the speedy/frantic “Moonshine Still,” the charming “Swimmin’,” and more.

The surprise on Reversal is “Curtain Call,” where Takénobu sings. His voice is an urgent, vibrato-laden tenor that fits neatly with the composition, where rhythmic clicks, staccato “chords,” and weaving lead lines all come together to create a sum larger than the parts. Even if there had been no vocals, “Curtain Call” would have been a great piece–with the vocals, it’s a lovely surprise. In fact, the whole album is lovely, and should be appreciated by more than just those who are into modern composition. The beauty, complexity, and diversity of the work on Reversal should appeal to anyone interested in acoustic music.

Top Albums of the Year: 1-10

January 3, 2015

Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.

Album of the Year: The CollectionArs Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.

2. Kye Alfred HilligReal Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.

3. St. EvenSelf-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.

4. Brittany Jean and Will CoppsPlaces. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.

5. The Fox and the BirdDarkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.

6. CancellieriCloset Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.

7. Little ChiefLion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.

8. Novi SplitIf Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.

9. M. Lockwood Porter27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.

10. Jacob FurrTrails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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